Long-running Massively Multiplayer Online game City of Heroes is due to close this year. While the game remains profitable and has around 100,000 active users, the publisher NCSoft has decided it doesn’t fit with the company’s focus. Rather than sell the game to another publisher, they immediately laid off the 80 employees of developer Paragon Studios, leaving the game with a skeleton staff until they lay it to rest by the end of November.
The game has been running for 8 years – I’ve heard from people who have grown up there, who have proposed to wives and husbands in-game, or who have introduced their children to it as they become old enough. These people face losing their old haunts, places they often regard as an extension of their hometown. The community faces being torn apart.
The first point I’d like to make is that this isn’t a game anymore; the ‘game’ aspect of it is, at this point, something of a vestigial organ connected to the body of something much larger.
On any article or thread on the subject you will find comments from people talking about the personal importance of the community to them, or of the memories they have of the game. I’m not here to talk about that.
What I think hasn’t really been touched on elsewhere is the fact that what we’re glibly referring to as a game is in fact a priceless work of art, unprecedented in scope and sheer scale.
City of Heroes has the most versatile and easy to use character editor in the history of gaming. Yes, you can create a muscleman in spandex with a cape and a mask. But you can just as easily play an elf, a wizard, a cowboy, a robot, a dinosaur, a monocle-wearing time traveller, a fireman, a police officer, a sky pirate, a brain parasite, a private eye, an accountant, an alien, or a super-intelligent shade of the colour blue.
This is a world in which playing a cyborg elf cowboy who channels the might of the Sumerian gods is not only possible, but actually pretty normal. Players are also encouraged to write a short description of their character, his or her background and abilities.
In recent years, the game has added a feature called ‘Mission Architect’, inviting players to create content for the game; missions other players can play through and comment on. Since its inception players have built tens of thousands of additional missions. The highly customisable nature of the game also lends itself well to machinima.
Over the years, 9,000,000 people have played the game. Every single one of them has created at least one character. There are now more than 43,000,000 characters on the servers; a fictional population comparable to that of Spain.
What do you get when you ask millions of people to explain to you, in words and pictures, their idea of a superhero?
There are only around 3,000 characters in the above video, a tiny fraction of the population of the servers, but every one of them represents a real person. A person who, for whatever reason, decided that a giant panda or a fiery angel or a super-patriot with a star on his chest or a guy in pink shorts was how they wanted to be a hero.
The world of Paragon City is a vast work of participatory art, something absolutely unique and irreplaceable. It’s a glimpse into a particular corner of our collective psyche, a resource historians hundreds of years from now might relish – if it still exists.
Because right now it’s unlikely that it will. Electronic games are a new medium, MMO games even more so. The custodians of art and culture have yet to recognise it as art, or as part of our culture, or as worthy of preservation. Like the early silent films that were melted down to make boot heels, or the early episodes of Dr Who that were erased by the BBC to save on magnetic tape, it will be lost forever when the servers go down, because it was too new and too garish and too low-brow for anyone to think we’d ever seriously regret its loss.
As the campaign to save the game gets underway, we have an opportunity comparable to being able to write to the BBC in the sixties and telling them people will still want to watch Dr Who in the 21st century, to say that what’s being destroyed isn’t trash or ephemera, but part of our cultural record. Even if you’ve never played the game and never will, even if you aren’t part of that community, you can still join the calls for its preservation for the simple reason that together the players have built something huge and weird and amazing. Because what they’ve built has intrinsic artistic and historical value, and because once it’s gone, we’ll never get it back.
So what can you do? I believe the most important and easy things you can do are to sign the petition and get the word out by sharing this article or a link to CoH Titan’s ‘Save City of Heroes’ board. If you’re sharing somewhere with hashtags, use #SaveCOH. If you want to join or just see the in-game protests, instructions on getting into the game can be found here.
Edits: Corrected the age of the game, and added figures for the lifetime number of players/characters.